The Knife: September Girls Cuts To The Heart

A Review of September Girls by Bennett Madison

HarperTeen, 2013

September Girls Bennett Madison

by REBECCA, May 5, 2014


When Sam arrives at a small beach town with his dad and brother for the summer he notices that something is strange about its other inhabitants—all beautiful blonde girls—but can’t quite figure out what. When he starts to fall for one of them, he’ll get answers he never could have imagined.


I’ve been meaning to read September Girls all year and now that it’s getting warm, I finally sat down with most poignant of beach reads. After Sam’s mother takes off, his father loses it, sinking into a drunken depression and then diving manically into the task of finding himself. That summer, he decides that he, Sam, and Sam’s collegiate brother, Jeff, should leave town and take to the beach, where they’ll stay until September.

Sam’s father quickly throws himself into searching for buried treasure with a metal detector, and Jeff treats him to lectures on how this is the summer he should lose his virginity, but Sam misses his mother and finds himself walking alone for hours in a landscape that never quite seems the same twice. He’s a little sad, a little bored, and a lot anxious about growing up.

“[Dad often told me] that it was time to be a man, or man up, or act like a man, et cetera, et cetera. The whole subject was creepy—with vague implications of unmentionable things involving body hair—but the most embarrassing part was basically just how meaningless it all was. As if one day you’re just a normal person, and then the next—ta-da!—a man, as if anyone would ever notice the difference.

Like you can just instantly transform like that. Like manhood is this distinct thing with actual markers and consequences. Well, maybe it is. But even if it is—if there is any person on this planet who actually knows what it means to be a man, anyone who could truly sum it up—I would guess my father to be among the very fucking last to have the tiniest clue.”

He’s self-conscious that he’s a virgin, knows that he looks skinny and unimpressive next to his brother, and isn’t particularly interested in doing anything about either. So, when the swarm of beautiful, voluptuous, blonde girls who work at every business in town seem to be interested in Sam, he’s understandably confused. Even if most of them don’t speak to him, he sees them staring, smiling, and paying a kind of attention to him that he’s never received. And, because he’s not an idiot, he’s pretty weirded out by it.

The first night they’re at the beach, Jeff and Sam see a girl washed ashore from the ocean pull herself to hands and knees and scuttle away into the dunes. And this is just the first of many strange and confusing things that they witness. Little by little, his brother starts to fall for one of the girls, Kristle (pronounced like Crystal), and he strikes up a confusing and intense friendship with another, DeeDee.

As he and DeeDee get closer, the secret of the girls—or the Girls, as Sam thinks of them—slowly comes into focus. They aren’t human; they come from the sea, cursed to live in human form for a limited time, and unable to leave the beach town. Call them mermaids if you like, but they have no gender. They merely assume the form that instinct tells them will be most beneficial to beings who arrive on land with nothing: young, beautiful, female, and blonde.

September Girls has been a wildly divisive book in terms of public reviews, with a number of 5-star raves and even more 1-star pans. Nearly all of the latter are given with reference to accusations of the book’s sexism and misogyny. I’m gobsmacked by this truly careless reading, and desperately sad that the book’s public reputation has been tainted by it because it couldn’t be further from the truth. To the contrary, September Girls engages with our widespread culture of sexism and misogyny—sex as power; trapped girls; sex as necessity; addlepated boys—and skewers it. (I won’t do a point-by-point rebuttal of the accusations because The Book Smuggler’s review HERE does a great job of that.) Bennett Madison raises questions not only about gender, but about the power of narratives to concretize, challenge, reinscribe, and invert gendered tropes.

We have learned that we are beautiful. All of us. We are all beautiful. To those who may read this: we are more beautiful. No matter how beautiful you are, we are more. We just are. . . . We say this with no pride at all. We say it, maybe, with a little sadness. Our beauty is a gift that we have had no choice but to accept. . . . We were offered only beauty. We took it and we use it. It’s nothing special. It’s how we survive.

Since we have no word for beauty, we use the closest word we have. We call it the knife. Our beauty is only our knife. Our beauty is our only knife. It’s just a knife: rusty blade, ordinary handle. But it’s sharp. It does its thing. Nothing special.

When is nothing special the most important thing? When it’s the only thing. . . . We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with a sexiness that appears unconsidered. . . . So. We learn how to use our breasts, our asses, our eyelashes, our lips. We learn how to get what we want.

No. Not what we want. We never get what we want, do we? We learn how to get what we need.”

September Girls is a dreamy, beautifully-written meditation on how the unstructured time of summer allows for self-exploration and change that the school year makes impossible. Absent anyone from home who really knows him, Sam is on a scary but necessary journey to find out who he is. Part of that is figuring out what it means to engage with a gendered world (because such attitudes are, unfortunately, pervasive). Part of it is learning to appreciate himself. Part of it is learning how to be sad, how to be bored, how to admit to yourself that you aren’t special all the time.

Some have found September Girls a bit dull or slow-paced, but for me it perfectly echoed the feeling of standing in the surf, feet in the sand as the ocean drags it from under you. After each chapter told from Sam’s perspective is a section told from the Girls’ perspective (like the quote above), creating a give and take of ocean and land, and when Sam loses time it’s like the exhausted, lightheaded, salt-drenched moment when you fall asleep on the beach, too sun-drained and beach-blind to notice the hour.

September Girls is a beautiful piece of speculative fiction that’s as dreamy as the ocean and as rough as sand in your underwear. I can’t wait to read whatever Bennett Madison writes next.


Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989). September Girls’ placiness reminded me of Block’s L.A.—something about the combination of heat and love.

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (2011). In Stiefvater’s tale, it’s horses that come from the sea, but it’s similarly dreamy, with harsh reality abutting the speculative. My full review is HERE.

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz (2013). When Rudy leaves everything he knows to move to an island whose magic fish might be able to cure his brother’s cystic fibrosis he knows things will never be the same. What he can’t know is that he’ll meet someone who changes everything he knows about himself . . . and presents him with a life and death dilemma. How will Rudy choose between two people he loves? Check out my full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. September Girls by Bennett Madison is available now.


In Which Tessa and Rebecca Compose a Poem in Scotland!!!

Today (now yesterday) we went to an amazing place: Cramond, a seaside village outside of Edinburgh. There, we walked to Cramond Island, which can only be reached during low tide. Unfortunately Thankfully, we were not stranded on the island where we would meet some reclusive Highlander who had come to the island because there was a price on his head . . . nope, that didn’t happen even a little bit. But it was still beautiful and amazing. And after our trek, sea-sprayed and sandy and quite chilled, we stumbled into the Cramond Inn, where we had drinks and overheard the bartender, who was, like, fourteen, tell another patron that the place had been a pub for 400 years, and that the building was even older. Yowza.


Anyhoo, befuddled by (one) drink (each) and sea-fresh air, we composed the following ridiculous poem as an ode to our Scotland trip so far. We traded off line by line until we simply needed to stop and buy salt and vinegar crisps so we could make it to the bus back to Edinburgh. So, here you go. We’ll be back with more actual book-related things soon. If you feel like you want to nominate this poem for a Nobel prize or something, we don’t mind. Really, we’re just in it for the art.

Oh, Aye:

An Exquisite Corpse Style Poem from a 400 Year Old Inn in Cramond, Scotland,

by Tessa and Rebecca

Down the close, the cracks get smaller,
crazes cleaving like cauliflower.
If our muscles with bubbles were carbonated,
we’d float up ourselves, kilted & wig-pated.
A beer, a cider, a winter beach or
the terror of some long walled-up creature?
Old men’s speech like moss ribbons curled
up on themselves, clods dropping off the bottom when their laughs unfurl.
The tide comes in, the gulls all cotton,
but all I see is a muddy dog-bottom.
If we’re wet, we’ll shake ourselves free of it ’til we’re all dog-sweat
and a double dog body branch to signify the tree of it.
Where’s your shuffle? The muscle now barnacle-striated,
young pip-pip birds turn their heads without knowing how they were created.
On a tie-dyed winter crumble beach
that high nor low tide ever reaches.
The bus turns to the side, promising a crunch.
You can’t see the front, don’t know what’s open for lunch.
But don’t retreat, don’t have a panic,
it has blown you oceanic.


You’re welcome!!!

Then, Tessa drew a picture of her current hero, James Boswell, whose diaries she’s obsessed with. I thought he looked like he needed to be wearing daisypants, so I added some daisies to his pants:

James "J-BOZ" Boswell

After that piece of literary history was composed, we went to catch the bus back to Edinburgh and met the biggest cat ever! We named it Cramond (obviously) and pet it a lot.


See you stateside . . .

(Young Adult) Oceanic Swells & The Vasty Deep

A List of YA Books & Movies Featuring That Sublime Creature, the Sea

Awesome waves in Hawaii

By REBECCA, August 24, 2012

Last time, on Crunchings & Munchings, Tessa gave us the scary and awesome list,  Moon Thrills and Planet Palpitations, featuring the totally delightful genre of Space Horror. Well, I’ve always thought that Outer Space and The Ocean were iterations of the same amazing, horrifying, dehumanizing, and sometimes delightful vastness. Besides that, as many of you know, I am completely and totally obsessed with the ocean, sea creatures, and books/movies featuring either. So, as a companion piece to Moon Thrills and Planet Palpitations, I give you Oceanic Swells & The Vasty Deep!


Maggie Stiefvater The Scorpio Races  Maggie Stiefvater The Scorpio Races

Maggie Stiefvater, The Scorpio Races

I reviewed The Scorpio Races here  a few weeks ago, and in a way it’s the inspiration for this list—a book that features the sea in all its many permutations: sublime, cradling, dangerous, alien, cleansing. Every November, on the shores of Thisby Island, men race the wild horses that rise up from the toiling waters—only one man may win, but many may die, bloodied and broken by their mounts, or dragged under the water with them, unable to resist their otherworldly call. Just . . . god . . . so good.

Kirsty Eagar Raw Blue  Kirsty Eagar Night Beach

Kirsty Eagar, Raw Blue & Night Beach

I haven’t read either of these books by Australian beach-lover Kirsty Eagar, but they’re both on my list. Especially Night Beach, which Goodreads describes thusly: “Abbie has three obsessions. Art. The ocean. And Kane. But since Kane’s been back, he’s changed. There’s a darkness shadowing him that only Abbie can see. And it wants her in its world.” It says that it’s a “gothic story about the very dark things that feed the creative process.” HELLO! You know what is a very underdeveloped genre? Oceanic Gothic. You heard me. (There’s The Dead-Tossed Waves, the second in Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth series, which is good, but they’re not in the ocean for that much of the book . . . great title, though.) Anyway, have y’all read either of these? Are they as good as they look?

The Brothers Bishop Bart Yates

Bart Yates, The Brothers Bishop

I love Bart Yates. The Brothers Bishop is about two brothers who are very close but total opposites, forever connected by growing up under the thumb of their terrifying and infuriating father. Serious, misanthropic Nathan likes his privacy in the beach house he inherited. Outgoing golden boy, Tommy, draws people to him without even trying. When Tommy shows up for a weekend visit with his boyfriend and two friends, the brothers revisit family secrets and make catastrophic mistakes, all against the backdrop of the ocean that laps the nearby sand. You can also check out my review of Bart Yates’ first novel, Leave Myself Behind, here.

Scott O'Dell Island of the Blue Dolphins

Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins

12-year-old Karana is left behind on her island home when everyone else is evacuated (omigod, that’s like being stuck in a spaceship floating in space when all the rest of your crew have died, ah!). Karana finds food, makes clothes, tools, and shelter, and actually manages to carve out a life for herself. A childhood favorite of mine.

Francesca Lia Block Nymph

Francesca Lia Block, “Mer,” a short story in Nymph

In “Mer,” an aging surfer is rescued from his lonely life on the beach one morning by a wheelchair bound woman who might be a mermaid. Nymph is a collection of 9 short erotic stories that are all a bit oceanic . . .

Moby Dick Herman Melville Loomings

Herman Melville, Moby Dick or, The Whale

YEEEEEESSSSSS! That is all. For your daily dose of the white whale, you can subscribe to the lovely Rena J. Mosteirin on Twitter @WWhaleCrossing. She is tweeting one line of Moby Dick every day until the book is entirely tweeted. She once told me how long that would take (in years) but I’ve blocked it. A daily line of Moby Richard?—yes, please!

Josh Neufeld A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge

Josh Neufeld, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge

This graphic novel tells the stories of seven New Orleanians before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. A prismatic approach that shows the vastly different experiences of folks throughout New Orleans.

China Miéville The Scar

China Miéville, The Scar

One of my favorite books of all time. Bellis Coldwine, errant linguist, is fleeing home when her ship is besieged by pirates and she is brought to Armada, a floating city constructed of interconnected floating masses that used to be the hulls of ships. Armada is ruled over by The Lovers who have long been masterminding an epic journey about which the motley inhabitants of Armada know little. But what is the mass stirring far beneath the depths of Armada as it moves ineluctably faster through the vast ocean? And what does it want?

Margo Lanagan The Brides of Rollrock Island  Margo Lanagan The Brides of Rollrock Island

Margo Lanagan, The Brides of Rollrock Island

And, just for fun, here’s a sea-drenched book I’m looking forward to, which will be out this January from the author of the wonderful Tender Morsels. From Goodreads:

“On remote Rollrock Island, men go to sea to make their livings–and to catch their wives. The witch Misskaella knows the way of drawing a girl from the heart of a seal, of luring the beauty out of the beast. And for a price a man may buy himself a lovely sea-wife. He may have and hold and keep her. And he will tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into those wide, questioning, liquid eyes, he will be just as transformed as she. He will be equally ensnared. And the witch will have her true payment.”


Blue Crush Kate Bosworth  Blue Crush Kate Bosworth Badass

Blue Crush

Y’all, no irony: Blue Crush is an amazing movie. It has everything that I love about sports movies (personal triumph in the face of adversity, spectacular action shots, the intrusion of a pretty superficial love story into what would otherwise seem like a solipsistic pursuit of personal achievement that humanizes the protagonist enough that we’re routing for her all the more—you know, the usual), only it’s set on the beach and features badass girls who don’t care about school or being clean. Also, did I mention it’s about surfing? Amazing!

Whale Rider

Whale Rider

Beautiful film about an 11-year-old girl who believes it’s her destiny to be chief of the Whangara, even though there has never been a female chief. She trains alongside the boys, hoping her grandfather will see her worth, finally urging a beached whale out to sea with her on its back. Epic.

Point Break Patrick Swayze Keanu Reeves  Point Break Keanu Reeves Patrick Swayze

Point Break

The classic tale of an FBI agent (Keanu “You sayin’ the FBI’s gonna pay me to learn how to surf” Reeves) who goes undercover to catch a group of bank robbing surfers (led by Patrick Swayze)—directed, most importantly, by the awesome Kathryn Bigelow. Presidential masks, surfing, jumping out of planes, and homoeroticism—what more could you possibly want out of your entertainment?

Waterworld  Waterworld


The Polar ice caps have melted and the world is almost entirely under water in this post-apocalyptic delight starring the amazing Dennis Hopper, the un-amazing Kevin Costner and an adorable baby Tina Majorino. It’s pretty awesome.

The Talented Mr. Ripley  The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Based on the (super wonderful) novels of Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley, directed by Anthony Minghella, features Tom Ripley, a talented mimic, who tries to insinuate himself into the life of golden boy, Dickie Greenleaf, with whom he falls in love/lust/envy. Set in the Italian Riviera, some major shit goes down asea.

Ondine Colin Farrell  Ondine Colin Farrell


Written and directed by the always-delightful Neil Jordan, Ondine is the story of Syracuse, an Irish fisherman and recovering alcoholic who catches a nearly-drowned woman in his nets. When his ill daughter, Annie, finds out about Ondine, she becomes convinced that Ondine is a selkie—a seal creature turned human on land—and almost has Syracuse believing too, just a little. A really lovely movie about how we make up stories to edit the world into what we want it to be.

Finally: So sue me—I don’t like Jaws. But instead, I shall leave you with a bonus: the video for Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”! You’re welcome.

Song of the Sea: The Scorpio Races

Review of The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, 2011

By REBECCA, August 3, 2012

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater


Puck Connolly: Lives with her brothers and loves Thisby Island with her whole heart

Dove: Puck’s underfed farm horse, nota capall uisce like the rest of the Scorpio Racers’ mounts

Sean Kendrick: 19 year-old horse trainer who just wants peace and the space to train his own horses

Corr: Sean’s best friend, a capall uisce owned by his boss

Finn Connolly: Puck’s brother, sensitive and hopeful

Gabe Connolly: Puck’s older brother, who threatens to leave the island


Every November, on the shores of Thisby Island, men race the wild horses that rise up from the toiling waters—only one man may win, but many may die, bloodied and broken by their mounts, or dragged under the water with them, unable to resist their otherworldly call. Sean Kendrick is the returning champion of the Scorpio Races, and there is every reason to believe he’ll win again this year. Until something unthinkable happens on Thisby Island: Puck Connolly enters the race—the first woman ever to do so—and although they barely know each other, she and Sean are soon forced to sacrifice everything to pursue the one thing they each desire.


Free Library of PhiladelphiaFirst, a confession: I read The Scorpio Races nearly five months ago and I have avoided writing about it because I loved the book so much that I knew no review I wrote could express my feelings about it. But, in case there are people who haven’t gotten around to reading The Scorpio Races yet, I feel so strongly that you should deny yourself the great pleasure no longer that I’m sucking it up and slapping together what I hope will be a review not quite so tear-sodden as the library copy of the book I read (apologies, Free Library of Philadelphia patrons: I cried my face off on that book).

Ahem. Now, then. I read Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver a few years ago and although I liked the concept and thought the prose was lovely, the story wasn’t really my speed, and I lost steam about halfway through the sequel. I love beautiful prose, though, so when I heard Maggie Steifvater had a new book out—about bloodthirsty water horses, no less—I was really eager to see what this lovely prose stylist did with a story that was a bit more up my alley. My word!: even in the first few pages I was completely captivated by the prose and sucked into the amazing world of Thisby Island.

To put it clearly: The Scorpio Races is simply one of the finest examples of world-building I’ve read. Stiefvater’s touch is subtle and effortless as she evokes what read like only the relevant pieces of a capacious other world. This is fantasy at its finest: I felt as if I were reading a piece of historical fiction about real people who lived in a world slightly different than my own. Thisby Island has its own history and traditions; its own social mores and superstitions (though Stiefvater draws on Scottish and Irish legends of the capaill uisce—flesh-eating horses that come from the sea during storms).

I loved the way I felt dropped into the middle of it all. In the hands of a less talented storyteller, it could have felt info-dumpy, but Stiefvater simply writes as if we are all familiar with the place and time in which the story takes place, doling out details as we need them and allowing the context to reveal them slowly when we don’t (for example, rather than informing the reader that capall uisce is the singular of capaill uisce, Stiefvater simply uses each where it is appropriate, her very vocabulary enfolding us in this other world). And, oh, what a world.

“I am dreaming of the sea when they wake me.

Actually, I am dreaming of the night that I caught Corr, but I can hear the sea in my dream. There is an old wives’ tale that capaill uisce caught at night are faster and stronger, and so it is three in the morning and I am crouching on a boulder at the base of the cliffs, several hundred feet from the sand beach. Above me, the sea has made an arch in the chalk, the ceiling a hundred feet over my head, and the white walls hug me. It should be dark, hidden from the moon, but the ocean reflects light off the pale rock, and I can see just well enough not to stumble on the coarse, kelp-covered rocks on the floor. The stone beneath my feet has more in common with the seafloor than the shore, and I have to take care not to lose my footing on the slippery surface.

I am listening.

In the dark, in the cold, I am listening for a change in the sound of the ocean. The water is rising, quickly and silently; the tide is coming in, and in an hour, this incomplete cave will be full of seawater higher than my head. I am listening for he sound of a splash, for the rush of a hoof breaking the surface, for any hint that a capall uisce is emerging. Because by the time you hear a hoof click on the stones, you are dead” (27-28).

I won’t say much about Sean or Puck, except that they are exactly the kind of characters I love to read about: complex characters with material, emotional, and economic needs, desires, and challenges who are flawed but honorable. Also, it’s no secret that I love obsessoids and monomaniacs. Although neither Sean nor Puck reach an Ahabian level of monomania, its waves certainly lap at their feet.

what are this book’s intentions? does it live up to them?

I’ve read several reviews of The Scorpio Races that note two things that are, for me related: first, that the book feels really different from other YA fantasy that’s out there, and two, that the pacing is slow. Second thing first, for me, the pacing was perfect: I was sucked in by the details of the world and the incredibly interesting characters and beautiful prose for the first half of the book, and then sucked in by the excitement and suspense and drama for the second half (then I was reduced to pathetic, weeping, pile of tears at the end; but more about that later). I think the pacing (which I would call measured, rather than slow) contributes to The Scorpio Races feeling like a different kind of book.

I think also, though, that Stiefvater’s treatment of her characters’ desires is a large part of why The Scorpio Races feels different from many other YA novels. To wit: Puck and Sean are characters who have to work hard for their own survival and to support the people (and horses) they love. This means that they are much more focused on practical matters than many YA characters, and that there is little emphasis on friends or the trappings of school-bases sociality. What Sean desires more than anything else is for his capall uisce, Corr, to belong to him instead of to his boss. What Puck desires is to keep her family together.

What this means, above all else, is that The Scorpio Races isn’t a romance (in the genre sense of the term). Puck and Sean’s developing relationship is beautiful and deftly wrought, but it is not Romantic. Their bond is one of necessity and mutual determination—a restrained and clutching need, not a dreamy or lustful desire. In this way, Puck and Sean seem more like a tough old ranching couple than any kind of star-crossed lovers. And it’s stunning to see a teen relationship portrayed that way.

“Sean Kendrick opens the door.

He looks at me.

I look at him.

This close, he’s almost too severe to be handsome: sharp-edged cheekbones and razor-edge nose and dark eyebrows. His hands are bruised and torn from his time with the capaill uisce. Like the fishermen on the island, his eyes are permanently narrowed against the sun and the sea. He looks like a wild animal. Not a friendly one” (137)

As is now nearly a given with successful YA novels, The Scorpio Races has been optioned for a film by KatzSmith Productions, so that Hollywood can squeeze every last ha’penny out of young adults’ allowances (and, of course, my paltry wallet). Let’s hope they don’t completely f-ing ruin it by, among other things, turning it into an insta-love smooch-fest.

personal disclosure

I finished The Scorpio Races on a plane. I was sitting in the window seat and a middle-aged woman sat next to me. Despite the fact that I always confess to crying on trains while reading, I am so not a public crier—and usually when crying at books on trains a discreet tear will slip from under my sunglasses and glisten unnoticed in the sunlight. While reading The Scorpio Races on the plane, six inches from a total stranger, I was crying so hard that tears were streaming down my face and I turned around 90 degrees so that my back was to my seatmate and I was facing the window shade. But I could not stop reading. I was all, “hey, Rebecca, just put the book away and save the last 50 pages for when you get home because otherwise this woman is going to call a flight attendant to have you sedated; there’s a good girl.” But I didn’t listen. It was like the other people on the plane didn’t even exist.


Daughter of Smoke and Bone Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (2011). Daughter of Smoke and Bone is another rich, dark book that sinks the reader right into another world. Tessa and I have discussed its highs (Prague!) and its lows (angels!) at greater length here, here, and here (with bonus Viggo Mortensen)!

Ghost Medicine Andrew Smith

Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith (2008). No, I didn’t just pick this as a readalike because it has horses. Still, though, I’m not sure—not having grown up around horses myself—but it does seem as though horses inspire a certain kind of . . . reverent tone when written about by awesome prose stylists. A beautiful book about friendship, nature, and the things we value by the inimitable Andrew Smith.

Taming the Star Runner S.E. Hinton

Taming the Star Runner by S.E. Hinton (1988). Ok, fine, this one I picked kind of just because of the horses. I love S.E. Hinton! No, but, Travis moves out of the city to live with his uncle, who owns a horse ranch. He is captivated by the horses, though he knows nothing about them, particularly Star Runner, a beast who seems more alien than earthly being. And the girl who rides Star Runner is like no one Travis has ever know.

Procured from: the library, but then I loved it so much that I bought it

Slices of Life: No Crystal Stair and The Watch That Ends the Night

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

illustrations by R. Gregory Christie

carolrhodaLAB, 2012

The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic

Allan Wolf

Candlewick Press, 2011
review by Tessa


No Crystal Stair

Lewis Michaux, headstrong, driven man who wanted to make sure African-Americans knew the history of their people

Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, Lewis’ brother, a famous preacher

Mary Michaux, wife of Lightfoot, disapproving of Lewis

The FBI, wants to keep tabs on this bookseller in Harlem

Malcolm X, a friend of Lewis

The Watch that Ends the Night

The Captain, the Businessman, the Refugee, the Shipbuilder, the Iceberg, the Dragon Hunter, the Immigrant, the Navigator, the Gambler ,the Telegraphist, the Socialite, the Lookout, The Stoker, the Tailor the Tailor’s Son, the Junior Officer, the Violinist, the Baker, the Ship Rat, the Undertaker, the Postman, the Cook…


The most world-changing bookstore you never knew about, told by the people who were there. The most well-known disaster at sea, told by the people who were there.


I chose to review these two books together because they take a similar tactic in dealing with their particular historical investigations. No Crystal Stair calls itself a “documentary novel”, and so I’d call The Watch That Ends the Night a “documentary novel in poems”. Neither are billed as non-fiction, but both explore real historical figures and events. And neither are straight novel or straight poetry, but rather novelistic in scope and varied in voice and structure.

a photo of Michaux’s store, via Harlem World Mag

One of the fun and frustrating things about history is that there’s always another way to look at something.  Even if you were there, a witness to an event, it would often be difficult for you to authoritatively say what happened.  Nelson and Wolf exploit and expand on this aspect of history by breaking their narratives up into voices.

Nelson’s are very much in the talking-head style of a documentary, except written down in paragraphs on the page: “All those black books! I’ve never seen anything like it. The Howard University bookstore had some black books but mainly textbooks. When I walked into Lewis Michaux’s bookstore and saw all these histories, biographies and autobiographies, fliers and posters, it was mind-blowing.” (96).

Wolf’s voices speak in poems. Some are letters and telegrams. Some are free-verse and could just as well be prose.  Some are free verse and let the poetry work for them, playing with imagery, slipping into concrete poetry, and even using lack of capitalization and punctuation to underline the lost voice of a toddler:

“the barber shop is a razor.

the barber

he wants to shave at papa’s mustache.

so i cry.

too many things are gone.

papa is a mustache.

and papa is pockets.

with biscuits. with bullets.

and a pistol. bang. bang.” (180).

Some (the iceberg) have actual rhyme schemes: “James Dobbins (last to die), not jumping clear, / while he himself Hail Marys and huzzahs, / is crushed by timbers as the people cheer.” (14).

What was the book’s intention and was it achieved?

Each author’s use of the documentary style lets the reader into history without letting history fade into the background. Unlike a historical novel, where a character just happens to be at the right historical place in the right historical time, whether by working for a famous historical figure or being the right age/sex to get drafted into war, in these books the characters are there because they already had a part to play, and that is being documented.  The narrative is helped by the leeway that fictional interpretation can give.

it’s the watch that ended the night! get it?? photo by flickr user digiblue

This is most apparent in The Watch that Ends the Night and less so in No Crystal Stair. Any filigree of yearning, ambition, light romance, or life that Wolf gives to his characters serves to make them mourned should they not survive the night. The book would be propelled by a sense of doom whatever Wolf did, but he plays it up in his poems, too, doling out foreshadowing judiciously like a stoker would manage the coals in the furnaces of the ship.  Wolf’s not playing around with any of the facts of what happened,  he’s using his poetic license to play with our emotions.  And in doing so, he’s making the facts stick.

No Crystal Stair is similarly researched and it includes historical asides, photographs, and news clippings.  Better that it does, because it’s telling a story that should be more widely known, but isn’t.  Earlier this year, the New York Daily News published an article about East Harlem getting its first bookstore.  It failed to mention Harlem’s original bookstore (located in the Mount Morris Historical District, as far as I can tell from Wikipedia), which was built and run by Lewis Michaux, despite much struggle on his part.

This was the National Memorial African Bookstore on West 125th Street. It was an institution dedicated to informing black people about their history and the works of their forebears and peers.  Malcolm X frequented it and spoke in front of it.  And it was eventually forced out of its home by developers. The story follows Michaux from his childhood, where he was outshone by his famous brother, a preacher, through his first idea of having a bookstore, through the long years of getting the project off the ground, to its success (leading to a thick FBI file on his activities which was forced to conclude that he was no threat to national security).

photo by flickr user aoyenda

Although Michaux and his family are sometimes not easy to like, he didn’t let anyone give him any guff and it’s plain to see that the man did admirable work and was an admirable person.  And boy, did he know how to speak in a memorable soundbite: “Until the neglected and the rejected are accepted and respected, theres gonna be no damn peace… nowhere! Only a tree will stand still while it’s being chopped down.” (127).

Lewis Michaux was the great uncle of the author, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, who says that she “visited the store only once, when I was fourteen and, regretfully, didn’t realize the store’s significance until years after it had closed and my uncle had passed away” (166).  While Wolf’s research on the Titanic proved challenging because there was too much written on it too soon, allowing for a wealth of rumor, research on No Crystal Stair had the opposite challenge for Nelson, with “nonexistent and conflicting information complicat[ing] the project” (166).  It’s easy to see why Nelson turned to the format that makes up No Crystal Stair, leaving room in the imagination for what could not be verified in research.

However, the research she did do became marred, in my reading, when I found that one of the most affecting personal stories of a bookstore customer was revealed in the endnotes to be a full fabrication.  There was so much to be impressed by with the story of the bookstore that I found myself wishing that it had been left to stand on its own.  The extra story ended up feeling like too much manipulation, a failsafe in case the story couldn’t speak for itself.

Despite that small letdown, No Crystal Stair is a work that should be read and enjoyed by people who have an interest in the history of New York, bookstores, black power, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps stories, or any student that wants to have an especially interesting Black History Month research project. And The Watch That Ends the Night is a great suggestion to fans of the film Titanic, fans of stories in poems, or morbid-minded people who want to get a little weepy.  After these two reading experiences, I hope more authors explore the documentary novel as a form.



Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village

Laura Amy Schlitz, illus. Robert Byrd

A Newbery Medal winner from 2008, this book uses poems to illuminate the world of medieval England, using 22 distinct voices.

Crossing Stones

Helen Frost

Helen Frost is the MASTER of the novel in poetic voice. This particular book is set during World War I in the American heartland, and has four main characters who do the speaking. Its poems are deceptively straightforward, but trust me, don’t skip the explanation of their structure at the end.

World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

So, this is a history of things that have never happened.  But it sounds just like what oral histories sound like – a little dry, but exciting because it really happened (please read some Studs Terkel if you don’t know what I’m talking about)! Only this never happened. But there are zombies!

Disclosures & Digressions

I wish there were more R. Gregory Christie illustrations in No Crystal Stair, and more Jon Klassen in The Watch That Ends the Night.  Illustrations 4-evah!!!

%d bloggers like this: